Reflections from the Mountain


Hwagyesa Temple

I’ve been teaching English at Hwagyesa temple since February. I teach Buddhist lay people who are already quite advanced in English but may need help with tricky grammar or unusual words.

There are a couple of negatives–I have to get up at 6:45 am Sunday morning to get to the temple on time (Classes start at 8:20 and it’s across the city.) So no Saturday nights, early rising (I’m much more likely to stay up until 6 than to get up anywhere around it the other days of the week).

But the people are so wonderful and the temple is in the foothills of Bukhansan. In fact, my favorite hike in Seoul starts right here!  Grumble as I do about the early rising, it’s still nice to see the sun rise (though it’s fully dark on my bus rides now) and be one of the only people on the bus or subway.


No, really though.

It sounds like the time is coming to an end–the head monk wants a real Buddhist teaching English. Fair enough. So I’d like to share some of the interesting (to me at least) moments from this past year.  These are just some rambling and scattered anecdotes, so consider yourself warned.



⊕ One of the first days one of the women asked me what “dank shit” means. They also asked me about “Wishy-washy” and were surprised it didn’t have anything to do about washing. Later, the phrase “you’re history!” was quite amusing as well

⊕ I learned that in 1980’s Korea one could go to jail for reading a Time magazine in public.

⊕ This was uttered, which I will relate without comment: “It’s okay for brainwashing for the right direction.”

⊕ As was this: “My nephew is very intelligent. But the Korean young woman doesn’t care about intelligent.”

⊕ Over summer break, one of my students told us about her travel plans to Estonia. I asked her if it was in the Schengen Area. She didn’t know but this led to a discussion on German. “I know one other German word,” said another woman. “Schadenfreude.”

⊕ Later one of them asked about what foods to eat if one wanted to stop hair loss. (Apparently black beans and sesame oil are the secret here). “What about in America?” they asked me. “What do you eat to prevent hair loss?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  They all laughed at the thought that I wouldn’t know. “I think we’d say eat lots of veggies to get your vitamins and minerals.” One of them scoffed and said “I don’t believe it.”


⊕ Another time, I asked one of the women, “How was your Saturday?”
She smiled very big and said “Yesterday I went to my sister’s house to have alcohol.” Her smile got even bigger.
⊕ I truly blew some minds when they asked me what slang words we had for hand fans in the USA and I told them we didn’t really have any, words or fans. (My mom being a notable exception to the latter.)  I actually think this was the most shocked they were the entire year.

⊕ They asked me what animals an attractive woman might be called. I told them about”She’s a fox.”  “Oh how about bear?” One of them asked. “Is attractive woman also called a bear?” I told her what a Bear was and she just covered her mouth in embarrassment and didn’t speak again for a while.

⊕ I was told that a famous monk predicted a Korean crises, followed by a world crises but then that Korea would emerge as a world leader largely because of good karma accrued for not hurting anybody.

⊕ The Korean movies International Market (“I cried a lot), On the Way Home, (a small boy and his grandma) and Sound of Cow Bell  (the classic story of an old man and his cow) were recommended to me. I haven’t seen any of them yet but they come highly praised.

⊕ I taught them modern slang and all of them, but especially the 70 year old man, laughed so hard at the word hangry.

⊕ This might not be true, but apparently in Japan there were so few men around after the war that people were given permission to hump anyone. Women were discouraged to wear underwear. Because of this, a 2nd family name based on the place of conception (things like “By the sea, under the tree, on the rice field, etc) became part of the names and this lasted until the 70s or 80s. When this story was told, one of the students said “Oh, that’s why Japanese are so open to sex!”

⊕ Just last week I learned that an unmarried woman used to be called “old-miss” but now in light of career women they are called “gold miss.”

⊕ I was  asked about the word “bad-ass” and how it could mean something good.


The Gang’s all here

⊕ We also hiked several times. The last time we all hiked the oldest of us (a 70 year old man) broke his ankle but still walked the two hours down to the trailhead. The whole time he was asking me about the difference between a trek and a hike. (Korean is I think a fairly precise language and the ambiguities of English sometimes baffle them.)  On an earlier less dangerous hike though we stopped for lunch, then bread, then coffee. During coffee one of them asked me what I usually eat (they are very interested in my diet.)

I told them usually stirfry and rice or pasta. She frowned and asked me something else, in Korean. The man next to her translated “She wants to know: why are you fat?”


Noodle version of my dinner


And the Rice variety


“I eat very big portions,” I explained. All of them looked at me unsteadily, until another man who has traveled extensively in the US explained the difference in portion size, using his hands to emphasis little and big. They all awwwed in understanding and we went back to drinking our coffee.

So I will miss my time in the mountains, with the Buddhists, in the temple. But I won’t mind having my weekends again.


4 responses to “Reflections from the Mountain

  1. this is awesome. ‘then why are you fat?’ and holy cow, that’s interesting about hiring an actual buddhist–that’s kinda cool, ’cause you’d do it next year if they asked probably, but it will be nice to have your weekends back.

  2. A Buddhist teacher wouldn’t know “American Slang”. But it will be nice to sleep in,again,on Sunday’s anyway.

  3. They are right regarding the Japs after WW2.

    Date: Tue, 8 Dec 2015 18:34:16 +0000

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